Bourbon Street can wait. First, the posters

From the American Society of Hematology meeting in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS — It was late Saturday afternoon and it had already been a long day for people attending the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology (ASH). But before the hoards of well-behaved medical researchers ventured out into the lively streets of New Orleans, they flooded en masse into the poster hall.

Scientific meetings have a hierarchy for their presentations. Keynote speeches and plenary sessions get big crowds in big rooms. Other research talks vary in length and run concurrently, competing for attention.

And then there are the posters.

The heartbeat of a meeting often lies in its posters, each one presenting a study summarized neatly with methods, results and conclusions on display. (Middle-school science projects are small versions of posters.) At a scientific meeting, these studies are pinned up on rows and rows of bulletin boards, all carefully numbered, usually in a vast hall. Scientists love them.

Part of the love might be sentimental. Getting a poster accepted for presentation at a meeting is an early career milestone for a young researcher. But a poster session is also enjoyable because it’s a self-service affair. Listening to a windy speech or trying to follow someone’s endless Power Point can be tedious. Posters are a take-it-or-leave-it deal. If you’re not interested in one, just move on to the next.

A poster can offer a modest advance on a well-trod path of research or it can be an eye-popping finding that draws a knot of observers. At scheduled times, scientists must be by their posters to take questions. Having onlookers cluster three or four deep at your poster is gratifying.

For a researcher, a poster is also a step toward being published and that’s a good way to attract funding for a project. And although giving a formal talk about your research ranks higher on the gravitas meter, posters are more enjoyable because the venue is less nerve-racking and the questioning more in-depth, says Armand Keating, incoming vice president of ASH and a hematologist at the University of Toronto.

While posters are a great way for college students and junior researchers to become known to their colleagues, Keating says many senior investigators still submit them because they like the interaction that follows. It’s worth noting that many Science News stories reported from meetings come from posters

The Saturday crowd buzzing around the posters here seemed to having a swell time. Perhaps it was those plates of chicken cordon bleu appetizers being passed around. One long line of happy people led to a beer stand. Poster sessions are informal events.

That atmosphere made this poster hall one big Babel of conversation. People stood by their work, literally, and defended it before inquisitors. Where did you recruit your participants? Do you plan to check the levels of a certain peptide next time? And so on.

Many conversations were not in English, even though all the posters were. For scientists whose first language isn’t English, posters are a great equalizer. Some people read English more easily than they speak or hear it. While it may be difficult to follow a fast-talking speaker flipping through slides, a poster can be absorbed at a leisurely pace.

So the next time you see someone on an airplane carrying a long plastic tube that looks like it might hold a fluorescent light bulb, it’s quite possibly a scientific poster — somebody’s bright idea.